Part of the Palace Brothers mystique lies in mastermind Will Oldham's ability to shape his lo-fi indie predilections into a postmodern treatise on faux-Appalachian chic. With rugged enthusiasm and somber presentation, Oldham -- under various incarnations of the Palace moniker -- crafted a series of records in the '90s that presented the alt-country fad with its most honest and innate tribute (no more so than on the sparsely haunting 1994 EP Hope). It's as if the Anthology of American Folk Music collided with Guided by Voices and then withdrew to the hills for a get-to-know-you, no-electricity weekend retreat with the Elephant 6 crew.
Oldham has since abandoned the Palace project, but one of two new releases under his own name, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2, gathers many of the odds and ends that Palace left behind (B-sides, outtakes, live tracks) for one last trek through the intense backwoods of its creator's psyche. Guarapero is a sequel of sorts to 1997's Lost Blues and Other Songs, which compiled several of Palace's rare and early singles, and collected the skeletal frames of the entire Palace development. Guarapero, on the other hand, is Oldham working at his most rustic and assured (and, occasionally, his most flippant). Tracks here span the Palace catalog (Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace, Palace Songs, and Oldham solo turns). They extend from a Lynyrd Skynyrd(!) cover to various one-shot singles and BBC sessions (including a mournful, beautiful 1995 reading of "O Lord Are You in Need?"). And Oldham, transfixed by the nature of his surroundings, keeps things pretty organic (i.e., acoustic). He has the facility to turn these mostly original compositions into familiar-sounding, age-old traditional mountain hymns -- the spare "Drinking Woman" is a ringer for a campfire folk tale -- without forcing the arrangement.
Ode Music, a soundtrack to a "motion-picturette made by Kelly Reichardt," is more complex and ultimately the more daring of the two new works. It's all instrumental -- or "silent music," as Oldham calls it -- variations on a theme. Five pieces divided among 10 tracks, Ode Music doesn't have much to say, but in its minimalist approach (basically Oldham plucking away on an acoustic guitar), it achieves an evocative new type of modern Americana: 21st-century blues.
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